Socialist Worker

George Orwell - a life of rebellion against the establishment that made him

Issue No. 2336

Orwell’s view of the kind of socialism needed in Britain—most clearly stated in The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius—is fundamentally wrong, but not in a trite, nationalistic way.

Capitalism, he proclaimed, “simply does not work... cannot deliver the goods.” It would have to be replaced by socialism if England was to defeat Hitler.

He was wrong in three important ways.

First, he presumed that revolution was imminent in Britain in 1941. Hence his argument in favour of the Home Guard, that “the gun over the worker’s bed is a sign of democracy.”

Second, he was wrong to believe that only a socialist Britain was capable of defeating Hitler. He was far from alone in thinking this. It was the position of the majority of British Trotskyists, for instance.

Third, and most importantly, he was wrong to think that patriotism was more powerful than class hatred.

John Newsinger points to the contradiction, “He was serious about both the desirability and necessity for socialism and about preserving national culture and character, propagating an almost mystical patriotism,” writes John.


“Most commentators have focused on his contribution to the elaboration of the ‘English Genius’... and have neglected his call for a new socialist movement that would reject both Communist-style revolution and Labour Party reformism.”

The Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci believed that socialism must become common sense. But Orwell, at his worst, seemed to imagine that “working class common sense” was socialism.

His socialism retained a grasp of socialism from below because of the experience of Spain.

So at the end of the Second World War, Orwell wrote, “Britain is moving towards a planned economy, and class distinctions tend to dwindle, but there has been no real shift of power and no increase in genuine democracy. The same people still own all the property and usurp all the best jobs.”

Orwell was at heart a rebel against the establishment that produced him. He wrote “When I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.”

And for all his flaws the side of socialism is where Orwell spent his life.

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.